Hayley Hughes, formerly a design lead at Airbnb, shares how the design language system team helps the pioneering hospitality service produce better user experiences for customers and employees alike. In this interview, Hayley shares how Airbnb’s design system not only encourages collaboration, and improves efficiency, but also helps designers make their products more accessible to people with disabilities.
How does Airbnb’s design system help foster inclusive design?
We’re doubling down on our accessibility initiatives. It’s a really high priority for the company and it’s coming straight from the CEO.
I believe there’s an inextricable link between design systems and accessibility — the idea of designing with and for people with disabilities in your design process. When you build accessibility into the design system, then you can scale projects to the broadest audience possible by first addressing the needs of people with disabilities.
What’s the role of the design system at Airbnb?
I think about the impact on the business in two ways. First, the system streamlines collaboration between product teams, brand teams and marketing teams because it provides reusable digital assets and consistent documentation. It also provides a historical context on what’s been done in the past while allowing you to design for the future.
Second, the design system is a kind of curator that represents how the company’s values manifest themselves in the products we design. That can mean the colors, type and iconography we use remind users of what we stand for and gives a sense of inspiration and belonging. Of course, we have to balance the curatorial role against the practical needs of people in our company who want more efficiency, productivity and the ability to crowdsource their insights within the design system.
How has the design system improved collaboration?
It’s having a dramatic impact on our designers’ and developers’ ability to work together. We can pull the same digital assets and components in multiple mediums, which helps us prototype faster and test new ideas. And it’s not just a product to us — it’s a community. I lead hackathon-style meetings with designers and engineers where we find ways to improve the design system. It’s great seeing multiple teams cross-pollinate.
We’re also mapping out the entire journey people take when they use our service. That’s driving a lot of interdisciplinary collaboration. We’re not just designing with product managers and engineers. We’re designing with the legal team, the finance team, the policy team who works with local governments, and many more. We hope to build that user journey into the DNA of how people think about design systems.
How did you get buy-in to build the design system?
It was a top-down initiative because our CEO has a design background. Most leaders I’ve worked with understand that it’s good for the business, for consistency and for maintaining high product quality. It also helps product teams focus on the experience and stay in sync on the design details baked into the system. I didn’t have to convince anybody.
What advice do you have for companies that don’t fully understand the value of design systems?
You have to show that the design system can unify an end-to-end experience. When you’re talking to leaders, don’t get into the weeds of implementing the system. Focus on the why — not the what and the how. That’s how you align people on a shared vision.
Give people demos, prototypes and anecdotes illustrating that it’s not a one-and-done prospect; it’s an always evolving, organic initiative. If you demonstrate a value proposition that the design system will improve the customer experience and how design teams and the larger company operates, you can get people really excited about it.
What’s one common pitfall when developing a design system?
The biggest pitfall is building the design system in a silo. You have to keep channels of communication open to prevent your development team from adding features without feedback from the teams who will use the system.
From the beginning, ask yourself how you’re going to maintain the system in five or 10 years. Make sure you design with and for your community and have a plan in place to respond to them when you change things.
How do you measure the success of your design system?
We compare the use of components in the design system to components made from scratch to measure efficiency, productivity and consistency in the user experience. We also try to measure the system’s ability to help people do their work. It’s not all hard numbers, but we want to capture people’s sense of enthusiasm about the system and their willingness to prototype with it while it evolves.
What’s your governance process for people contributing components to the design system?
Lots of questions come up when we have to decide whether a certain component should be added. We’re facilitators in that conversation. We just want more visibility into people’s contributions to the system. Teams need to be able to share components with each other so they don’t have to create everything from scratch. We just want to make sure they know about the components that already exist. They can build from those and tell us what they’ve added, and we can add their contributions to the evolution of the component.
We also use a file-naming structure that shows developers and designers that a component has been modified. The naming convention helps people find components and not have to rebuild them.
What kinds of shifts in the design community are you anticipating in the years to come?
Emerging technologies will have a big effect on our customers. We anticipate developing guidelines for conversational interfaces and gestural design.
We’re also investing in inclusive design, among many others. Our community includes people with disabilities and people in underrepresented groups, and we’re really focused on reducing bias in our product and employee experiences. All social systems underpin design systems. The design industry is paying attention to that, and so are we.